How can I help an Autistic child regulate?

How can our North Brisbane paediatric Occupational Therapists help your child with Autism to keep calm and regulated?


Keeping calm or regulating yourself can be a tough process for children with Autism. 

Regulation or Self-Regulation is the ability to recognise the existence of an emotion within ourselves in response to an activity or situation, and use appropriate strategies to keep our body and mind in a space where we can still think.


Dr. Dan Siegel, a psychiatrist in the USA, simplifies the concept of a tantrum or meltdown as “flipping our lid”. He uses the hand model of the brain to describe our emotional brain and thinking brain. 

Here’s a you tube video explaining the model: – worth a watch!!

His model outlines:

Your thumb represents your Limbic System (mid brain) where your brain experiences big feelings and is often called the “low road” as it can make us quick to act (fight, flight or freeze). 

Then you curl your fingers around your mid brain and form the Cortex where all our thinking and decision making occurs. 


During a meltdown, the child’s ‘lid flips’, and they are unable to think and make decisions to calm their body using a plan or strategies. 


Children learn to calm or regulate through a process:

  1. Co-Regulation by a parent or caregiver, this usually is the method of regulation between the ages of 0-2 years. The child will often reference the parent and model their response off their parents.
  2. Modified Co-Regulation, where the child may have a go at regulating, but will still reference the parent or caregiver if needed which usually occurs around 3 years.  
  3. Co-Regulation with a Less Trusted Adult where the child is able to respond to the cues of a familiar adult to calm and regulate which usually occurs around the age of 4-5 years.
  4. Child attempt at Regulation, where the child will have a go at regulating but may need some prompts for strategies along the way if they get too bumpy with their attempt, this usually occurs around 5-6 years. 
  5. Self Regulation, where the child is able to calm and regulate themselves with a plan and strategies that have been practiced and work for that child, this usually occurs around 6-7 years. 


Strategies can be:

  • Sensory based e.g. tactile tool – koosh ball, movement tool – animal walks (walking like an animal e.g. bear crawl), visual tool – ooze tube
  • Cognitive based e.g. Dragon Breath – I take a big breath in and blow it out like a dragon breathing fire
  • Modelled e.g. adult models a calming technique, child follows


The key to helping children with Autism keep calm is to:

  • Identify what level of regulation they are at
  • Recognise or help them to recognise their body cues that lead to a meltdown or dysregulation
  • Work with your OTs to identify useful strategies and plans that adults around the child or the child can use


If your child with autism has difficulty keeping calm, our team of occupational therapists can help!  Get in touch today to book your appointment!